Disruptive forms of protest, if executed properly, are the most effective way to raise awareness about forms of social injustice. I do not mean to suggest that all forms of disruptive protest are justified. They can often dissolve into nothing but a display of anarchy. Disruption for the sake of disruption serves no end, but when well executed, these protests can be the most effective and most important means of activism. Think about Butterfly. She, a single individual, succeeded in altering the actions of a huge corporation. Certainly she had plenty of support, but in the end it was her body which physically stopped the loggers from destroying the tree. There is a time for diplomacy and a time for action.
Last year, 1.2 million people assembled in Washington, D.C. at the March for Women’s Lives, which sought to protect reproductive rights, among other concerns. The March was the largest in America’s history, and received almost no media attention. Over one million people filed through the mall in Washington, and hardly anyone noticed but the marchers themselves. Why? Because no one had to. There was no sense of urgency. Disruptive protests are the most extreme form of advertisement. The Pacific Lumber Company couldn’t ignore Butterfly. They had to entertain her concerns. On the other hand, despite the efforts of 1.2 million marchers, little has improved in the United States’ policy on reproductive rights.
We live in a media-saturated society. We close countless Internet pop-ups and flip through countless television commercials every day. Disruptive actions break the pattern and demand attention. To that end, they are the most effective way to make one’s voice heard. Ignorance is one of the most daunting enemies that social activists face. Who knew about the threat of extinction to a forest of redwoods in California before Butterfly? How many students on this campus are currently aware of the human rights violations committed by Coca-Cola’s bottling plants in Colombia? Both have been largely reported in the media, but to no effective end. Consider the genocide in Rwanda. The brutal slaughter of over a million Tutsis was no secret. Images of Tutsis in concentration camps appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek among other major news sources, yet no international action was taken, and the Hutus continued to slaughter the Tutsis by the thousands.
Disruptive protests are a means of shortening the causal chain to draw attention to instances of injustice. They are a reciprocal action that disrupts the lives of people who are often unknowingly disrupting the lives of others.
Not all disruptive protests are successful, however. They must serve a clear purpose and be intentionally targeted at a specific group of people. Recently, a group of UMass students marched through the town of Amherst stopping traffic to protest the war. I question the effectiveness of these actions. Though they did draw attention to the necessity of change in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, they didn’t actually produce any change themselves. I would say, then, that these protests, though valuable in their own way, were not a successful form of activism.
Countless acts of injustice occur every day, and we will remain completely ignorant to most of them. Media affects our society like the weather. No one notices it unless it prohibits us from carrying out our intended plans, like the cancellation of a soccer game due to rain. Disruptive protests are necessary as a public declaration of “enough is enough.” When injustice reaches a certain limit and other forms of activism fall short, then we must take a stand. If our words cannot stop injustice, then our actions must.
Durwood can be reached at [email protected]